Where was Desmond Howard when Michigan needed him?
Was the Heisman Trophy winner taken out of the Rose Bowl game because Washington's corner backs shadowed him into oblivion, or was it Coach Gary Moeller's plan to use the nation's most explosive offensive weapon as a decoy?
Whatever, it was a dismal day for Howard.
He caught only one pass, carried only once and handled six kicks for a disappointing 60 yards. The closest he came to a touchdown was the Washington nine-yard line, where he was brought down after catching a 35-yard sideline pass from Elvis Grbac.
What made matters worse is that during the second half, which started with the Wolverines trailing, 13-7, Howard's number was called only once, when Grbac overthrew a pass early in the third quarter. From then to the end of the 34-14 loss, Howard never touched the ball on offense.
While Howard was running downfield on nearly every play, Grbac chose to throw 15 times to receivers such as tight end Yale Van Dyne and tailbacks Ricky Powers and Tyrone Wheatley.
This after a season during which Howard scored a touchdown every 4.35 times he touched the ball, caught a touchdown pass in 10 of 11 games and scored at least once in every game.
What happened? Answers vary, depending on which side you listen to.
Howard and Moeller claim the Huskies double-, even triple-teamed him, forcing the harassed Grbac to look for other receivers.
"They doubled on him more than we anticipated," Moeller said, "and we couldn't take advantage of it by running. What hurt us most was that we couldn't run the ball and the way they were playing Desmond, we should have. Our poor play was probably determined by their great defensive play, but it was obvious we had some breakdowns."
Howard said that he was usually covered by a short man, then picked up downfield by a cornerback with the free safety helping out at times, and that the Wolverines' offensive line didn't give him and Grbac time to create a rhythm.
"I was disappointed, but I can't really tell you why I wasn't getting the ball because when I was running my routes, I couldn't tell what was happening behind me," Howard said. "They definitely had a better defensive scheme than any we've faced.
"When I was going long, I guess the quarterback thought he could hit the short man, but like coach said, it hurt when the line couldn't get the runners loose."
Maybe the Heisman jinx caught up with Howard. The past 12 months have not been good to winners of the prestigious trophy. Ty Detmer, the 1990 winner from Brigham Young, had his second consecutive sub-par bowl performance. Andre Ware, the 1989 recipient, is third-string for the Detroit Lions. Bo Jackson, who won in 1985, had to quit football because of an injury.
Grbac, whose nine-yard touchdown pass to flanker Walter Smith made the score 7-7 during the second quarter, said he was not surprised by anything Washington did defensively, simply that they did it so well.
"They did exactly what we expected," he said. "It just wasn't a good day for Michigan. Washington is by far the best team we played. Notre Dame and Florida State (which handed Michigan its only regular season defeat, 51-31) are not even close."
Don James, the Washington coach, said credit should be given to Walter Bailey and Dan Hall, the cornerbacks who kept Howard well covered.
"We played a tremendous amount of (man-to-man coverage) on Howard and our guys did a good job," James said. "Our two corners had their best game of the year. I'm proud of the way Bailey and Hall played against Howard, but our whole defensive team played a whale of a game."
Howard said he didn't think either of Washington's cornerbacks were the equal of Florida State All-American Terrell Buckley.
"One on one, nobody is as good as Buckley," Howard said. "He's the best."
Michigan suffered six sacks, as many as it did during the regular season. Washington quarterbacks, who threw for three touchdowns, were sacked only once, when Billy Jo Hobert dropped back to pass, slipped and fell.
"We didn't call a lot of (all-out pass rushes), but we just got a lot of guys in (Grbac's) face," James said. "We tried to let Grbac know that we had players assigned to more than Howard."
Grbac completed 13 of 26 passes for 130 yards and lost 40 yards on sacks. Michigan converted on only two of 15 third downs.
"It wasn't one of Grbac's better games, I think we all know that," Moeller said, "but I think when you start off for the first time in the Rose Bowl, on your first series, and you get sacked twice, it doesn't do much for your confidence."
On Michigan's first possession, after two running plays netted a first down, Grbac was sacked for seven yards, Powers was stopped for no gain and Grbac was sacked again for six yards.
"We just didn't execute, but then again Washington is as good a team, maybe better, that I've ever played," Moeller said. "We're a better football team than what you saw out there today. I haven't seen Miami, but I don't see how anyone could rank Washington anywhere but No. 1. I just can't imagine anyone being a better football team than this one."